I confess that I am in the midst of a very long, ongoing love affair—with islands.
Many islands. I have yielded to their temptation in many seas—some repeatedly—and each island has shared its unique characteristics abundantly and unabashedly.
The most valued aspect of these island affairs is that they have taught me the principles of green living, as dictated by the isolation that is a normal, accepted part of the island lifestyle. While the isolation is part of the charm, it also has its own set of challenges.
The point is that living on any island requires one to live mindfully. Mindful of everything from water use to recycling to consolidating trips to the mainland to save money.
Right from the beginning, I found myself constantly saying, “When we return home, we need to continue to live as though we’re living on an island.”
And then we did.
Here are a few things we learned.
- Avoid paper products. Paper products take a high toll in trees and are bulky to ship to islands. We had never used paper products except for toilet paper, so this was easy. One amusing result was that when our oldest son went to Kindergarten in 1985, he returned home with cafeteria questions.
“What are those paper squares that the ladies put on the trays?” he asked.
“What do they look like?”
“They’re folded up,” he said. “They’re white.”
“Ohhh. Those are ‘paper napkins’. Schools don’t use cloth napkins,” I said.
I imagine the school staff thought we were raising little heathens who didn’t know how to use napkins.
- Conserve water. On the islands that we have visited, water is usually gathered from the passing rain showers and saved in a cistern. You didn’t let the water run while you brushed your teeth. You didn’t run the washing machine without a full load. Common sense.
- Don’t get hung up watching television. In the islands, mega-sized generators that fueled the entire island and went down several times a day often supplied electricity. Televisions were rare. One time walking the dusty road into town, I saw a crowd gathered around a tiny black and white set in front of a village store. The crowd was laughing hysterically. I approached to see Paul Rodriguez beaming in from Mexico City. We rarely watched television, and this non-habit was part of our life at home. While we had a television—a small Sony that we had purchased in 1974—we only watched it for occasional news or—ha!—“Saturday Night Live”.
Instead of watching television, we sat out on the porch. We read, or played Scrabble, or talked to each other. Sometimes we swung in the swing under the shade of the enormous twin beech in the front yard. The boys rode their tricycles up and down the length of the porch, and chased fireflies at dusk.
In later years, we would occasionally rent a movie from the convenience store. In those days, when you rented a movie it entailed carrying home a VCR unit. Yes, kids, you carried home a VCR and a VHS movie videotape as part of your evening rental, hooked it up and then carried back the whole kit and kaboodle the next morning.
- Visit your library for reading materials. I loved one island’s aged library whose wide stone sills had been built during the sugar mill days. At home, instead of buying books impulsively, we went to the library. I did have a small but growing library of my own beloved titles, and we did buy Children’s Books. I wanted our sons to know the joy of having special, favorite books. Going to the bookstore was a very dear activity. When they moved from home, our sons took with them several large boxes of their childhood books, which they retain today in their 30s.
- Buy local. In the islands, you can’t get there from here. You have to be satisfied with what’s available from a limited selection. Once when I asked for a Hershey bar at an island mini-mart, the response was “melt too much”. (The heat also makes the language terse. 5a. Mean what you say and don’t chatter needlessly.)
At home, we didn’t just drive into town for every little item that we needed. No impulse driving. We kept a list for the items to be purchased and the errands to be run. In later years, when we lived in a rather remote location by some standards—an hour’s drive from the grocery store—our habit served us well.
- Grow a garden and cook it yourself. In the islands, local produce is king. Due to the high cost of ocean freight, in the islands you pay high prices for prepared foods that mainlanders take for granted. At home, I planted and maintained a garden from Day 1. Organic. In the early years we lived close enough to the ocean that we used seaweed to mulch and enhance our soil. I canned and froze everything. At home, we cooked from scratch. Everything. Even the bread—and this was before bread machines. As a result, our children enjoyed nourishing food and were never fussy eaters.
There were some times when it proved comical.
Our children always chose a favorite meal for their birthday dinner. One year when our youngest was five, we had a birthday party and four little boys joined us that evening. Zack’s selection was a Cantonese meal: Ho Yu Gai Poo. The children refused to eat it. No problem. We had lots of leftovers. I suppose I could have told them that these were “chicken nuggets” and served the sauce on the side, but I’m glad that this didn’t enter my mind.
When our sons grew up, their taste buds were “spoiled”. Since they had never experienced fast food, they didn’t crave it. Of course, they did try it when they went away to school, and certainly ate it for a period of time. Now in their 30s, our sons favor a plant-based diet with occasional free-range meats—never pork. (Pigs are smart creatures.) They have been at times vegan and pescatarian. It makes a mother proud.
- Make things and fix things. In the islands, you don’t buy new clothing every season, as the fashion magazines would lead you to believe is necessary. If you need a chicken coop, you build it. Recycled lumber is very common.
I had always sewn my own clothes, except for blue jeans and imported Indian tops and winter jackets.
I had always been repulsed by the pinks and blues assigned at birth so automatically. I made velour overalls for our babies, soft and warm, and in bright or earthy colors like purple and russet. I hand-sewed a stack of quilts, made a goosedown coverlet from a Colorado kit company, and knit a cedar closet full of woolen sweaters. We built our own house, barn and chicken coop. For heavens sake, we drilled our own well!
Sometimes when I think back, I have to remind myself that this all really did take place. I’m sure that some of you can identify with this. There is nothing quite like the energy of youth. Youthful energy becomes mid-life habit and mid-life habit begets senior citizen tradition. It’s all good.
- Find delight in nature. In the islands, we enjoyed tropical trails and white sand coves on shore, and coral canyons full of schools of bar jacks and butterfly fish in the sea. At home, we looked forward to morel mushroom season in the woods when we walked sycamore-lined creek beds and old apple orchards. I followed the tracks of a mountain lion and her cubs with my snowshoes, reveled in the sound of the coyotes in the hills, and absolutely loved to watch the beaver heading home at dawn as he swam across the front of our property. Admittedly, we had to wire fence our trees to ward him off. One morning, I found an otter lazing about on our dock eating fresh water clams.
- Dream about the rest of this amazing solar system. One island home that we rented had a flat concrete rooftop where lounge chairs called to you at night so that you could view Mercury on the horizon in December and watch for the occasional shooting star—a special treat to point at quickly and track across the sky.
At home, I drove the truck up to a high field during the Perseids in July and lay in the truck bed with my sons while the cascades of meteors flew by.
- Share with your friends and neighbors. In the islands, little is wasted. We saw people carrying home other persons’ discards. At home, if we didn’t need something, we sold it cheaply or gave it away to someone who did. The boys sorted through their toys for donations, and participated in food drives.
I’m pleased to say that we now live on an island in Puget Sound where these values are firmly in place. People here take the ferry to the mainland. Thankfully, there is no bridge.
Certainly we haven’t spurned technology. It brings the world to us. We even have an island Facebook group where our residents share what they no longer need, report ISO (in search of) items and report stuff we need to know. Example:
“Heads up! Two Nubian goats seen headed south on Island Road at 5:10 this afternoon. Do you know who they belong to?”
I am very pleased that we are living the island life in reality now, but then, we have always lived the island life.
Great thoughts and great writing. I can identify with many of your points. We raised our children in the country fifteen miles from the nearest town. It was not as remote as living on an island but we practiced much of the lifestyle you describe. I am so happy we were able to provide a simpler lifestyle for our children. As adults I watch them choose elements from their childhood and work to provide them for their own children in a culture of waste and overindulgence. Gives me hope for the future.
Nancy, I’m so glad you enjoyed this. A lot of our generation shared this lifestyle. There were fewer distractions in those days, and much to gain for our efforts. I’m glad that our children have picked up from this and- you’re SO right- it gives us Hope. Love, Linda